In 2004 the Japanese filmmaker Hirozaku Kore-eda released Nobody Knows, a feature film based on the story of five children in Tokyo, abandoned by their mother and forced to fend for themselves. The film gained widespread attention for its depiction of a hidden social problem in a supposedly developed country, but it also attracted criticism for its bleak portrayal of the children’s situation. (The real situation, however, was far bleaker.)
Japanese-Canadian editor, translator, writer, and teacher Shelley Tanaka has done an admirable job of condensing the over two-hour film into a short novel suitable for readers in middle school and up. In the opening pages, 12-year-old Akira moves into an apartment with his mother. His mother assures the landlord that he is her only child and an honor student. In fact, Akira hasn’t been to school in years, two of his siblings are being smuggled into the apartment in suitcases, and another is getting met at the train station late at night. Soon after, Akira’s mother vanishes, leaving him to take care of his three younger siblings, ages ten, eight, and five. The children cannot leave the apartment, money runs low, and water and electricity are cut off due to nonpayment. Akira hunts in the garbage and begs for food to keep himself and his siblings alive.
By making the film’s story accessible in English to a new audience, Tanaka brings attention to abandoned children, whose plight is even more hidden in the developed world. Akira and his siblings refuse to tell anyone of their situation because they do not want to be split up; Akira in particular wants to prove his competence to his mother. These emotional ties prove stronger that the social service network that has been established to help children like Akira and his siblings. In fact, the only outside “help” that they get is from a 12-year-old girl who is alienated from her more privileged family and schoolmates and who finds her only human connection to be with other children on the margins.